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Coping with Stress and Anxiety as the Market Melts Down

The news is filled with stories documenting the overwhelming stress and anxiety being experienced by the American people and brought on by the meltdown of financial markets: "Most Americans Stressed-Out by Economy." "Housing Pain Gauge: Nearly 1 in 6 Owners ‘Under Water'." "Retirement Savings Lose $2 Trillion in 15 Months."

Unless you are some kind of environmental lunatic -- or Al Gore -- it is rather hard to take heart in the current economic woes and their global impact.

As I watched a comma disappear from my own retirement savings, this disaster was brought home to me in a very personal way and caused me to reflect on my own economic fantasies and less-than-thrifty spending habits.

It is well known that financial stress is linked to a variety of physical and mental health problems. Even in the best of economic times, many people have to deal with money problems or stress about whether they'll keep their jobs or their houses; but with the mortgage and credit crisis, the rising cost of gas and food, and the startling stock market decline, more Americans than ever are feeling financial angst.

While I don't want to ignore the (perfectly just and appropriate) suffering of all the wonderful Congressional and Wall Street types whose really incredibly bad judgment has made a bad situation much worse (you can be sure that at this very moment, those responsible for the disaster are busy covering their asses -- and their own pocketbooks -- by spending even more millions of our money to "fix" a problem they created and promoted for many years), I would like to primarily focus on Main Street, i.e., those of us whose financial and electoral judgment were merely shortsighted, irresponsible, and perhaps a bit reckless. How you view the crisis will have a lot to do with how well you adapt to and survive (or not) the devastation.

The key point is: Don't think of yourself as a victim.

Ours may well be the Great Age of Therapeutic Sensitivity (sometimes referred to as therapeutic psychobabble) and the Golden Age of Victimhood, where a preponderance of the population believes that no one should ever have to suffer any untoward consequences as a result of their choices -- a sort of "get out of responsibility free" card -- and where competing victim groups vie for attention and remuneration for their suffering. Many such groups go even further by demanding that they be rewarded for their bad choices and decisions. In short, these pity groups give real victims a bad reputation. While it all seems rather nonsensical (and exceedingly counterproductive), in the halls of Congress such thinking is rather typical.

The attitude that we are all helpless victims of the "system" and that the all-powerful and all-good government is always there to help and protect us from ourselves and all the horrible capitalist oppressors out there is one popular way to look at the current mess. The same politicians who got us into this mess are now actively promising to make all the pain go away so that neither they nor you have to change your behavior at all!

This sensibility permeates the culture to such an extent that it grossly interferes with real psychological health and functional coping mechanisms. In fact, in my profession, it is this type of thinking that becomes the major impediment preventing patients with serious psychiatric and emotional problems from being able to take any sort of control over their own lives.

As for non-patients, just trying to cope with the various stresses of life and deal with their anxiety about the future, it promotes a passivity and the sinking feeling that you are merely a helpless victim of forces outside your control.

Of course, to some extent, you are. Everyone is. But that fundamental reality doesn't mean you cannot take steps to reclaim your life and your future despite financial or any other kind of setbacks. Keep that in mind as we review what stress actually is and some of the healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with the current financial crisis.

Stress

These days we hear a lot about "coping with stress" and about how "stress" is behind all sorts of medical and psychological problems. Of course, what is really meant by this is that there are many unpleasant and difficult situations in life that we must respond to in order to live our lives, and that if we don't respond well, we can get sick.

In its simplest form, "stress" is nothing more than the physiological consequences of a frustrated or short-circuited "fight or flight" response to threats or danger.

Our bodies, which have not changed much since the days of the caveman, are hardwired to respond to danger or the perception of danger in certain ways. Either we "gird our loins" and stand and fight the danger or we take flight and run away from it to live another day. These two basic strategies covered pretty much every option that our ancestors possessed to survive and they lived or died depending on how effectively they were able to utilize one or the other strategy.

In our modern world, it is usually no longer appropriate -- or even civilized -- to employ either hardwired option. Imagine, if you will, the office worker called on the carpet by his boss, who reacts to this threat to his livelihood by punching the boss or by running screaming from the boss's office.

Neither response would be considered very stable; nor would it be very adaptive in today's world.

The point is that our body's hardware is designed to respond to perceived danger in this way, whether we like it or not. Of course, the boss yelling at us is not the same degree of danger our ancestors used to deal with, but our bodies aren't able to tell the difference. Hence, as we became civilized and our interactions with others and with our environment became more complex, the normal physiological responses of our bodies to danger remained the same, but the behavior -- i.e., how we acted on the physiological imperative -- changed significantly.

And so the concept of stress was born. We can't often fight and we can't often run away; when we do, significant problems may arise for us and for society. Our bodies still physiologically respond, but the usual behaviors that discharge the built-up toxins and return us to a physiological normality are gone. Psychologically and physiologically, this tends to take a toll on our bodies, either as physical or emotional problems.

Most people are very aware when they are experiencing stress and the intense physical and emotional discomfort can be a powerful motivation to change whatever behavior or situation is causing the sensation. Thus, stress and anxiety may be a source of motivation and even extra energy (e.g., in sports) if the physical and emotional aspects of it can be transformed from a destructive entity to a constructive one. This is where the concept of psychological defense mechanisms comes in.

Many people seem to think that any and all stress is a bad thing and must therefore be eliminated from your life as soon as possible. But where once our stress response existed merely to protect us from extreme danger (and still does), today it is also a key biological element that can promote and encourage psychological growth and development and help us to learn and expand our mastery over ourselves and our environment. Or it can make us physiological and emotional wrecks.

Stress and our response to it can help us to mature and expand our capabilities. Without stress, there is little motivation to change or improve either ourselves or our environment. Too little stress and we stagnate. Too much and we are at risk of falling apart. But just the right amount of irritation and frustration can encourage us to create something better of ourselves and our environment.

Keep that in mind as we proceed. Understanding what stress is and its role in our lives is important because we can either let the major and minor irritations of life destroy us or we can use them to create a pearl.

In the not-so-remote past, Americans tended to view human suffering as the consequence of the imperfections of human nature and the bad choices each of us makes in life. But with the dawn of the therapeutic sensibility, most Americans tend to see suffering -- including the financial setbacks we are now experiencing -- as some sort of temporary state of being caused by unjust social and economic structures. This view has been aided and abetted by Congressional do-gooders of all political persuasions.

Which view you take in dealing with the stress and suffering in your life, including coping with financial difficulties, makes a big difference. One attitude encourages the individual to objectively evaluate their own situation and change any factors and behaviors they have control over which may have contributed to their stress and suffering -- e.g., decrease personal spending; use the car less; stop using credit cards to buy things; switch portfolios from emphasizing stocks to other, less volatile investments; budget to eliminate discretionary spending so that mandatory expenses (like housing or food ) are covered -- in short, hunker down and take control over your finances. This view gives the locus of control back to the individual and empowers him to do whatever can be done.

The other attitude tends to emphasize an external locus of control and the externalization of blame -- even scapegoating in some cases. People with this dominant attitude will wait around for an outside force to rescue them and/or bail them out. They will search for someone to blame (never themselves), often at the expense of actually doing anything to solve their problem or change their circumstances. They will fall for any charlatan who tells them that they are victims of some vague "oppression" -- oppression that forced them to buy a house they could not afford or that put a gun to their head and forced them to buy everything on credit, for example -- and who promises them that they don't have to change the way they think and that they can continue to defy the forces of reality.

This is not to say, by the way, that those who encouraged and facilitated such irresponsibility and denial of reality should not be held to account and punished appropriately. But blaming cannot be the only or even the first response to a crisis. All too often the blame game segues right into the victimization game and then competing tales of victimization are generated to deflect any sense of personal responsibility or culpability. After all, everyone is a victim of forces beyond their control and that's what the government is for, isn't it? To rescue you from the exploitation of oppressors like mortgage lenders and credit card companies, to bail you out of the consequences of bad decisions you were forced to make.

Instead of adopting the righteous victim role, however, I would suggest that there are a number of healthier coping mechanisms that are out there. First and foremost, take personal responsibility for your own particular financial predicament. Unless a gun was held to your head, then your situation is at least partly of your own making.

Second, allow yourself to have a sense of humor about it. Humor, especially laughter, is always a good way to cope with any stress. Remember that you are hardwired for some sort of "fight or flight" response, and find a way to transform your very real anger and frustration into positive and productive action -- exercise, sports, hobbies, art, work, voting. Those are all physical responses that allow you to discharge your natural aggression in productive ways.

If I may suggest, it is perfectly appropriate to use the anger and outrage productively by voting the morons who facilitated the financial crisis out of office -- or at least by not rewarding them for their denial of reality. Make sure that the ideologies, financial policies, loopholes, and subsequent scapegoating that permit them to get away with their financial delusions are exposed and changed. Begin now to realistically plan for the future discomfort you anticipate as a result of the present crisis. Don't wait to be rescued -- rescue yourself. Change your bad spending habits. You may have to put off some major purchases or delay retirement and stay in a job you hate. You may have to retrench and even rethink your life. You will have to make choices and determine your priorities. No one else can do that for you.

It will undoubtedly be a stressful and anxiety-provoking experience. It will even be painful. But it can also make you grow, if you learn from it and use it as an opportunity to take control of your life.

And finally, look around. There are always people who are far worse off than you are. Find a way to constructively help them and it will bring pleasure and satisfaction to you also.

Taking control and responsibility for those factors which are within your control and responsibility leads to the development and use of healthy coping mechanisms. On the other hand, if you sit around and expect to be rescued -- or worse, demand to be rescued -- then you will only facilitate unhealthy coping mechanisms and maximize the anxiety, dread, depression, and sense of helplessness you already feel. These dead-end feelings make you vulnerable to the seduction of alcohol or other substances which accelerate the cycle of passivity and dependence and self-destructive behavior.

In all honesty, the only profession which might experience a mini-boom from the whole sordid financial collapse is the mental health profession, which is all too often willing and eager (much like the government) to cater to your victimhood and reassure you that it isn't your fault -- or theirs -- you're in the mess you are in.

Don't let yourself be a victim; and don't let them get away with deflecting their own culpability by more empty promises that ignore fundamental economic reality.